Sunday, 6 January 2013

The same old town: The Brecks

I always go home for Christmas.  I grew up in Norfolk, a pretty quiet county in East Anglia with a lot of great coastline, in a small town called Thetford.  For a lot of teenagers the place you grow up is the place you want to get out of.  It's the place where everybody knows you, remembers you when you were tiny and everything you've done since, and knows you as the child of your parents (which is not unreasonable, considering that they have been looking after you for your entire life so far).  In some cases you stay in your home town, you grow up, and eventually you find your niche there.  You carve out a place and make a life for yourself.

In other cases, you leave, and do your growing up somewhere else, but then you come back.  It's one of the trademarks of almost every questing myth that at the end the traveller returns home.  Often it's up for debate whether it's the place that's changed, or whether it's the person...

Canada Geese flying in formation across the Brecks

What I'm driving at is that when I came home this year I began noticing things that had always been there, but that somehow I'd never seen before.  It’s been a bit rainy, but that never stands in the way of exploration!  So here’s a whistle-stop tour of the place where I grew up, starting with the land it sits on.
I needed to get outside, so I went over to Nunnery Lakes.  The area is a bird reserve that runs along the Little Ouse river as it leaves Thetford.  It's a great place to see wintering migratory birds or other rare species, and there are apparently some otters around here too, although I've never spotted one in person.

Nunnery lakes, mid-December

You can walk from the edge of town where two rivers pass close to each other.  One is the River Thet, which gets its name from the town.  The name Thetford is Anglo-Saxon; Theodford, meaning ‘people’s ford’.  The other river is the Little Ouse, which you can follow up to the lakes.

There have been people living here for thousands of years, including the British Iceni tribe ruled by Boudica.  She was the warrior queen who caused the invading Romans no end of trouble, and Thetford  was her royal seat and headquarters for part of her campaign.

The Brecks and bird lakes across the Little Ouse

The area around Thetford is known as Breckland.  The Brecks are a particular kind of sandy heath that used to cover the whole region around Thetford.  After the First World War used up a lot of Britain's slower growing trees for timber, pine trees were planted here to create Thetford Forest, the UK's largest man-made lowland forest, so there aren't many areas of the Brecks left now.  I always know when I'm getting near home because of the Brecks.  The landscape turns flat and scrubby, and suddenly the distinctive twisted shapes of Scots pines are dotted around everywhere.

The heath makes the most of the sandy soil here, and you'll find species you don't see anywhere else in the country.  I saw a couple of green woodpeckers, a covey of rare grey partridges, and startled a few pheasants too.  They're tricksy, the pheasants, because they don't just fly away from you like any other bird, they hunker down and hide.  You don't see them until you're right on top of them and they suddenly explode out of the grass right in front of you!  This happened a couple of times before I managed to turn the tables and sneak up on one of them instead.

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